Let us now praise the popularity of presidential debates

The audience size for the Romney-Obama presidential debates was a near record, showing a hunger for civic life and for leaders who can uplift society.

AP Photo
Xavier Marrufo, right, and friends in Miramar, Fla., watch the Oct. 16 debate between Mitt Romney and President Obama.

 One measure of a common concern for the public interest among Americans is the number of people who watch the presidential debates every four years. Well, congratulations on having community spirit in 2012. The Oct. 3 debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney had a near-record number of viewers.

The candidate match-up drew more than 70 million people when you count all those watching on any electronic device such as tablets and not just on network TV. And given how few voters are undecided in the 2012 contest, the audience size for this event is even more amazing.

It shows not only a hunger for information and live TV drama but a desire to join a significant civic gathering. The only television event with a larger audience this year was the Super Bowl. Even the nightly broadcasts of the London Summer Olympics didn’t beat out the debate.

The second debate’s viewership was down by only 2.4 percent from the first one. Some websites reported even higher traffic. If the third debate, set for Monday with a focus on foreign affairs, is also high, then that would also be a welcome sign of how engaged voters are in their country’s future.

The high ratings could be a reaction to the tsunami of negative political ads. A recent study by the Wesleyan Media Project found less than 8 percent of presidential ads were positive. That’s down from 19 percent in 2008 and 30 percent in 2000.

Among younger voters, turnout at the polls Nov. 6 is expected to be lower than four years ago when enthusiasm for Mr. Obama was high, according to a poll by the Harvard Institute of Politics. But one reason for the possible lower turnout is that the current generation of young people puts a higher premium on community service than on political engagement – by 31 percent to 19 percent.

Based on a 2006 study, most people who don’t vote tend to be single and less engaged in their community. In theory, presidential debates should help promote civic-mindedness by offering a rational discourse on issues. Viewers are collectively listening for how each candidate can bring good to society and for ideas that are worthy of praise.

If each candidate shows a forbearance for the other’s ideas, rather than uttering personal put-downs, then such behavior helps Americans debate the issues with others in a civil way that builds mutual trust.

But respectful debate isn’t the only thing that can improve civic-minded behavior. Children who regularly celebrate Fourth of July events were more likely to vote as adults, based on a 2010 Harvard study.

One indicator of the need to elevate community engagement is that the civics knowledge among high school seniors has gone down since 1998, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Kids must be able to see adults involved in political life to turn that trend around.

With so many people watching this year’s presidential debates, perhaps the next generation is seeing how it, too, can eventually find a shared concern for the public good.

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